Claire Denis’s new film is a seductively indirect love triangle, a drama of the mind as much as the heart. It’s intriguing if contrived and anticlimactic, though acted at the highest pitch of sensual conviction. Denis has co-written the screenplay with the author Christine Angot, with whom she wrote her previous movie Let the Sunshine In, and this has the same novelistic feel. The original French title is Feu, ou Avec Amour et Acharnement (which translates as Fire, or With Love And Fury); the English subtitle comes from a Tindersticks’ track composed especially for this film about the lacerating agony of an impossible choice: (“I’m sliding down both sides of the blade”).
The three combatants are heavyweights of French cinema. Juliette Binoche is Sara, a presenter on a highbrow Paris radio talk show, who for 10 years has lived with Jean (played by the smoulderingly rumpled Vincent Lindon); he is a former sports star, retired through injury, who has served time in prison for an unspecified offence and now is apparently denied a credit card and so deals in cash. Jean has a teen son, Marcus (Issa Perica) whose mother now lives abroad and who is being raised by Jean’s mother Nelly (Bulle Ogier). The third corner of the triangle is François (Grégoire Colin), Sara’s ex-lover whom she left for Jean on a passionate impulse a decade ago. Jean and Sara haven’t seen François since then, but one morning outside the studio, Sara glimpses François in the street and all her old feelings are devastatingly reignited. Did he see her, too? It’s not clear, but maybe it’s not a coincidence that he contacts Jean trying to get his help with a sports agency he is setting up.
The movie interestingly shows that when a person is having an affair, they are capable of the most profound emotional doublethink. On the one hand (or perhaps on one side of the blade) this person is able to be happy in the marriage and yet also passionately infatuated with the other person. We see Sara intensely engaged with François, her old flame (he even appears to have a key to her flat). But in the next scene, we see her indignantly deny Jean’s accusations with all the integrity and tearful, injured innocence that Binoche can project so convincingly.
Watching her in these moments, it takes almost an effort of will to remember what we have just seen of her with François. Did it really happen? Was it a dream? An alternative reality that Sara was wistfully picturing? No. It was real. But, in the strangest way, Sara’s denials are real as well: entirely sincere, if self-deluding, in the moment. Because her love for Jean is real: it is not to be wished away as easily as all that.
The weakness of the film is how lightly François’s personality and background is sketched in: he is a mystery, a perhaps not entirely intentional mystery, compared to how intensely we are presented with Jean and Sara. Marcus and Nelly are engagingly and very humanely drawn and Jean’s other life as a troubled dad is also sympathetically imagined. But perhaps their lives crowd out the space that should have been made for François – and incidentally we could have been told more about Jean’s jail time and what led up to it. This is a film with plenty of ideas, some less than fully formed.
• Both Sides of the Blade screened at the Berlin film festival and is released in the UK on 9 September.